The original Oxford English Dictionary, edited by the great lexicographer James Murray, was never meant to be a mere dictionary. Murray wanted to account for every sense of every word in standard English—an astonishingly ambitious aim, given the size and fluidity of the language. The OED’s originators, Murray observed in 1900, were seeking “not merely to record every word that has been used in the language for the last 800 years . . . but to furnish a biography of each word, giving as nearly as possible the date of its birth or first known appearance . . . and the successive changes of form and developments of sense which [each] has since undergone.” The OED was finally completed in 10 bound volumes in 1928, 13 years after Murray’s death and 44 years after the first volume had appeared in 1884. It was an expression, Murray wrote, of “the scientific and historical spirit of the nineteenth century”—or, in other words, of the Victorians’ belief in their capacity to master and catalog every field of human endeavor.
The present state of the OED is in many respects a fulfillment of Murray’s vision. The third edition, begun in the 1990s and available online (revisions are uploaded at regular intervals), is scheduled for completion by 2034, by which time its enormous size will likely make physical publication impossible. The OED3, as it’s called, will attempt to account for every word used anywhere in the Anglophone world for nearly a millennium.
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